Page last updated at 17:08 GMT, Monday, 11 January 2010

BBC Profile: Iraq inquiry questioner Sir Roderic Lyne

By Mary Ann Sieghart
BBC Radio 4's Profile

When Alastair Campbell comes up before the Chilcot Inquiry into the war in Iraq on Tuesday, his toughest questioner is likely to be Sir Roderic Lyne, former ambassador to Moscow, former private secretary to John Major - and former running buddy of…Alastair Campbell.

Sir Roderic Lyne
Sir Roderic Lyne has become known for his tough questioning

Of the five people on the panel of the Iraq Inquiry, "Rod Lyne is, I would say by some distance, the toughest inquisitor, the toughest questioner", says John Kampfner, the author of Blair's Wars.

Former foreign secretary Lord Carrington agrees. He was Sir Roderic's boss 30 years ago, when the latter was his assistant private secretary.

"Nobody is going to pull the wool over Roderic's eyes or get away with it. He's somebody who's going to search out the truth and not be afraid of saying so."

So who is this trenchant ex-diplomat? And what was it in his background that made him eschew the traditional Foreign Office silky charm for a more down-to-earth bluntness?

Hitch-hiking to success

His father was a senior RAF officer who flew Spitfires in the War and ended up as defence attache in Moscow. Sir Roderic refused to go to Marlborough boarding school because, he says, there were no doors on the lavatories.

Instead, as he puts it, "I went to Eton by accident on a bursary for indigent boys too stupid to get a scholarship and too poor to pay the fees".

He claims to have done little work there, and his A-level grades were so bad that only one university - Leeds - granted him an interview.

At that time, it was fairly left-wing. He remembers his interviewer's first question as, "How did you get up here? Did the chauffeur bring you up in Daddy's Rolls-Royce?" "No, I hitch-hiked," Lyne replied.

That won him a place, and once there, he rarely let on that he was an Etonian, claiming instead to have attended Slough Grammar.

He did well at Leeds, and one former tutor remembers him as one of his best students.

Battered bicycle

Lyne then joined the Foreign Office, and after a posting in Africa and a couple of desk jobs, found himself working for the then Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington.

Glen Laws has been a close friend ever since they both joined the Foreign Office on the same day.

"In the days we both commuted into Whitehall, he gave up the train for a battered bicycle and tracksuit.

"It led to a famous occasion when he arrived at a ministerial meeting with minutes to spare, and found he'd forgotten his shirt.

"He later had to confess to the minister [Lord Carrington] that he'd spent the entire day sitting next to him in the latter's dress shirt which he'd found hanging in the bathroom."

Competitive

Lyne is fanatical about sport. He runs marathons and is such a passionate supporter of Manchester United that he gave one of his sons the middle name 'Charlton' after the legendary Bobby.

He also has a competitive streak that did not fail to display itself when he was ambassador in Moscow. He challenged Alastair Campbell to three races in St Petersburg, which the Downing Street spin doctor won two to one.

He also took on the Norwegian ambassador. Glen Laws recalls "there was a protracted competition with the Norwegian ambassador, over five years, for cross-country skiing, which is a national sport in Norway".

"After five years, Rod beat the Norwegian ambassador, and there was actually public interest in Norway that this outrageous thing had occurred. This is typical of Rod, just hanging on in there and eventually succeeding."

He likes to discover things himself and not just accept the received wisdom on any subject
Jethro Lyne, son of Sir Roderic

Although Lyne can sometimes be abrasive in argument, he is also gregarious and clearly enjoys other people's company.

Lyne's son Jethro is an art historian.

He remembers his father as a very involved parent, always taking the three children on outdoor adventures, something which has continued with the next generation:

"He's a very hands-on grandpa. Very good at distracting children if they're getting too feral. He takes them off on stomps through the fields."

And how would Jethro describe his father as a person?

"Someone with a healthy disrespect for authority. He's a truly terrible hospital patient.

"I remember some years ago when he had his appendix out and was told to take it easy - just a few days later he was up on a wind surfer, holding the sail up, doing everything you should not be doing to the scar.

"I think he's stoic and very driven. He likes to discover things himself and not just accept the received wisdom on any subject."

Chechen siege

When Lyne was Ambassador in Moscow, Chechen separatists took over a theatre, holding nearly 800 people hostage. Russian special forces stormed the theatre, releasing a poisonous gas.

A few of the hostages were British citizens, and when one young man ended up in hospital, Lyne tried to visit him and was refused entry.

So he rang Downing Street and persuaded then Prime Minister Tony Blair to phone President Putin and demand that he be allowed in. The hostage's mother, Sidika Low, was also caught up in the siege.

Russian army bringing the injured out from the theatre that was besieged by Chechen rebels in 2002
Sir Roderic pulled strings at the highest levels to visit a British victim in hospital

"When I was released from the hospital," she says, "I was driven straight to the British Embassy complex in Moscow and Roderic Lyne was actually waiting for me in the car park and introduced himself.

"He was very easy to talk to," she remembers.

"When we were leaving, he actually drove us to the airport, and stayed with us in the departure lounge until it was time for us to board.

"He even carried our luggage at one point which I thought was lovely."

Tough on friends

Lyne has now been plucked out of retirement to serve on the Chilcot inquiry.

Eyebrows have been raised over his links to companies like BP and JP Morgan Chase which have business interests in Iraq.

There is also the question of how tough he will be with friends and former colleagues.

His former boss Lord Carrington thinks Lyne will not let these relationships get in the way: "He would deal with it as if they were not his personal friends. He's not going to be rude to anybody but he's going to ask some very challenging questions.

"And the fact that he's a personal friend of somebody won't make any difference to the sort of questions he asks," he adds, "because his job there is to find out the truth."

Radio 4's Profile of Sir Roderic Lyne was first broadcast on Saturday, 9 January 2010. Or subscribe to the programme podcast.



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